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The Effect on Time: Part II

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  • The Effect on Time: Part II

    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe
    THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Brian Greene, 1999, 2003
    ```(annotated and with added bold highlights by Epsilon=One)
    Chapter 2 - Space, Time, and the Eye of the Beholder
    The Effect on Time: Part II
    It is difficult to give an abstract definition of time—attempts to do so often wind up invoking the word "time" itself, or else go through linguistic contortions simply to avoid doing so. Rather than proceeding down such a path, we can take a pragmatic viewpoint and define time to be that which is measured by clocks. Of course, this shifts the burden of definition to the word "clock"; here we can somewhat loosely think of a clock as a device that undergoes perfectly regular cycles of motion. We will measure time by counting the number of cycles our clock goes through. A familiar clock such as a wristwatch meets this definition; it has hands that move in regular cycles of motion and we do indeed measure elapsed time by counting the number of cycles (or fractions thereof) that the hands swing through between chosen events.

    Of course, the meaning of "perfectly regular cycles of motion" implicitly involves a notion of time, since "regular" refers to equal time durations elapsing for each cycle. From a practical standpoint we address this by building clocks out of simple physical components that, on fundamental grounds, we expect to undergo repetitive cyclical evolutions that do not change in any manner from one cycle to the next. Grandfather clocks with pendulums that swing back and forth and atomic clocks based on repetitive atomic processes provide simple examples.

    Our goal is to understand how motion affects the passage of time, and since we have defined time operationally in terms of clocks, we can translate our question into how motion affects the "ticking" of clocks. It is crucial to emphasize at the outset that our discussion is not concerned with how the mechanical elements of a particular clock happen to respond to shaking or jostling that might result from bumpy motion. In fact, we will consider only the simplest and most serene kind of motion—motion at absolutely constant velocity—and therefore there will not be any shaking or jostling at all. Rather, we are interested in the universal question of how motion affects the passage of time and therefore how it fundamentally affects the ticking of any and all clocks regardless of their particular design or construction.

    For this purpose we introduce the world's conceptually simplest (yet most impractical) clock. It is known as a "light clock" and consists of two small mirrors mounted on a bracket facing one another, with a single photon of light bouncing back and forth between them (see Figure 2.1). If the mirrors are about six inches apart, it will take the photon about a billionth of a second to complete one round-trip journey. "Ticks" on the light clock may be thought of as occurring every time the photon completes a round-trip—a billion ticks means that one second has elapsed.

    Figure 2.1 A light clock consists of two parallel mirrors with a photon that bounces between them. The clock "ticks" each time the photon completes a round-trip journey.

    We can use the light clock like a stopwatch to measure the time elapsed between events: We simply count how many ticks occur during the period of interest and multiply by the time corresponding to one tick. For instance, if we are timing a horse race and count that between the start and finish the number of round-trip photon journeys is 55 billion, we can conclude that the race took 55 seconds.

    The reason we use the light clock in our discussion is that its mechanical simplicity pares away extraneous details and therefore provides us with the clearest insight into how motion affects the passage of time. To see this, imagine that we are idly watching the passage of time by looking at a ticking light clock placed on a nearby table. Then, all of sudden, a second light clock slides by on the table, moving at constant velocity (see Figure 2.2) The question we ask is whether the moving light clock will tick at the same rate as the stationary light clock?

    To answer the question, let's consider the path, from our perspective, that the photon in the sliding clock must take in order for it to result in a tick. The photon starts at the base of the sliding clock, as in Figure 2.2, and first travels to the upper mirror. Since, from our perspective, the clock is moving, the photon must travel at an angle, as shown in Figure 2.3. If the photon did not travel along this path, it would miss the upper mirror and fly off into space. As the sliding clock has every right to claim that it's stationary and everything else is moving, we know that the photon will hit the upper mirror and hence the path we have drawn is correct. The photon bounces off the upper mirror and again travels a diagonal path to hit the lower mirror, and the sliding clock ticks. The simple but essential point is that the double diagonal path that we see the photon traverse is longer than the straight up-and-down path taken by the photon in the stationary clock; in addition to traversing the up-and-down distance, the photon in the sliding clock must also travel to the right, from our perspective. Moreover, the constancy of the speed of light tells us that the sliding clock's photon travels at exactly the same speed as the stationary clock's photon. But since it must travel farther to achieve one tick it will tick less frequently. This simple argument establishes that the moving light clock, from our perspective, ticks more slowly than the stationary light clock. And since we have agreed that the number of ticks directly reflects how much time has passed, we see that the passage of time has slowed down for the moving clock.

    You might wonder whether this merely reflects some special feature of light clocks and would not apply to grandfather clocks or Rolex watches. Would time as measured by these more familiar clocks also slow down? The answer is a resounding yes, as can be seen by an application of the principle of relativity. Let's attach a Rolex watch to the top of each of our light clocks, and rerun the preceding experiment. As discussed, a stationary light clock and its attached Rolex measure identical time durations, with a billion ticks on the light clock occurring for every one second of elapsed time on the Rolex. But what about the moving light clock and its attached Rolex? Does the rate of ticking on the moving Rolex slow down so that it stays synchronized with the light clock to which it is attached? Well, to make the point most forcefully, imagine that the light clock–Rolex watch combination is moving because it is bolted to the floor of a windowless train compartment gliding along perfectly straight and smooth tracks at constant speed. By the principle of relativity, there is no way for an observer on this train to detect any influence of the train's motion. But if the light clock and Rolex were to fall out of synchronization, this would be a noticeable influence indeed. And so the moving light clock and its attached Rolex must still measure equal time durations; the Rolex must slow down in exactly the same way that the light clock does. Regardless of brand, type, or construction, clocks that are moving relative to one another record the passage of time at different rates.

    The light clock discussion also makes clear that the precise time difference between stationary and moving clocks depends on how much farther the sliding clock's photon must travel to complete each round-trip journey. This in turn depends on how quickly the sliding clock is moving—from the viewpoint of a stationary observer, the faster the clock is sliding, the farther the photon must travel to the right. We conclude that in comparison to a stationary clock, the rate of ticking of the sliding clock becomes slower and slower as it moves faster and faster. 3

    To get a sense of scale, note that the photon traverses one round-trip in about a billionth of a second. For the clock to be able to travel an appreciable distance during the time for one tick it must therefore be traveling enormously quickly—that is, some significant fraction of the speed of light. If it is traveling at more commonplace speeds like 10 miles per hour, the distance it can move to the right before one tick is completed is minuscule—just about 15 billionths of a foot. The extra distance that the sliding photon must travel is tiny and it has a correspondingly tiny effect on the rate of ticking of the moving clock. And again, by the principle of relativity, this is true for all clocks—that is, for time itself. This is why beings such as ourselves who travel relative to one another at such slow speeds are generally unaware of the distortions in the passage of time. The effects, although present to be sure, are incredibly small. If, on the other hand, we were able to grab hold of the sliding clock and move with it at, say, three-quarters the speed of light, the equations of special relativity can be used to show that stationary observers would see our moving clock ticking at just about two-thirds the rate of their own. A significant effect, indeed.

    Figure 2.2 A stationary light clock in the foreground while a second light clock slides by at constant speed.

    Figure 2.3 From our perspective, the photon in the sliding clock travels on a diagonal path.
    Table of Contents
    .......The Elegant Universe